It was a chilly Saturday evening, and couples swayed back and forth to the infectious tropical rhythms of the Celia Cruz classic: “La Vida es un Carnaval”—a joyful song about celebrating life despite its ups and downs.
In the middle of Downtown L.A.’s Olvera Street, Latinos in their 50s and 60s congregate in the historic plaza every weekend to socialize and dance to their favorite genres. To many of them, Olvera Street is a nostalgic reminder of the towns they left behind to come to this country. And it’s not just the dancers, visitors strolling through the cobbled corridors purchasing artisanal Mexican knickknacks also feel similar emotions.
But Olvera Street wasn’t created to remind Latinos of a culture left behind. Where Olvera Street stands today is considered the founding site of this city — despite the Tongva people inhabiting the area long before Spanish colonizers set foot on the land now known today as Los Angeles. When the area went into disrepair, Christine Sterling, along with financial help from L.A. Times owner Harry Chandler, renovated the space with the labor of prisoners to create an attraction for white tourists looking to enjoy a romanticized version of a “Spanish” past. This Mexican theme park opened in 1930, a time when the reality of Latinos living in Los Angeles was that of second-class citizens.
While Olvera Street continues to perpetuate a mythical version of Mexico, it has taken on a new meaning for many Latinos looking to connect with their Mexican culture. It’s a place to celebrate their roots and teach the next generation to be proud of where they came from. On the dance floor of the plaza, down the passageway full of colorful puestos, and in the historic restaurants, Latino families pass down and forge new traditions.
Hear the voices on Olvera Street. Scroll your mouse over the photos.
Maria Naranjo y Membreno
Maria and Membreno are friends who come to Olvera Street for the dance parties every weekend. Originally from Mexico, Maria has been living in Los Angeles for more than 40 years. She’s been coming to Olvera Street for 20 years.
“I come here for church and because of the ambiance, the food, the people, I like everything about this place. I’ve been coming here for 20 years. I started coming here because Olvera Street is famous for its church service.
This is a little piece of Mexico. The little kiosks here are just like ones in the town I’m from.”
Amber and Janet
Amber and Janet are friends from Tennessee who came to Los Angeles for an exhibit featuring Janet’s artwork. When Janet researched the city before their trip, she read about Olvera Street and decided to make it a stop on the trip since its considered the birthplace of Los Angeles.
“Janet: I live on a historic main street in our hometown in Dixon, Tennessee and so I love things that are old and historic and have character and value and so I wanted to come here and experience that. It’s the beginning of the beginning of L.A. so that was very exciting to me and I love the old tree and I love the whole culture that surrounds it and the energy and the vibe and so we wanted to come be a part of that.
Samanta: Do you think this is a representation of authentic Mexican culture?
Janet: I personally, don't think so. I think it's a cliché of Mexican culture.”
Nancy and Sara
Nancy and Sara are sisters originally from Ecuador. They’re spending their Saturday at Olvera Street with family.
Sara: “This place reminds us of our home country. It’s very similar.”
Nancy: “There’s a lot of traditional things here that you can’t find in a mall.”
Sara: “You feel the warmth and familiarity of our home country.”
Jasmin is originally from Nayarit, Mexico. She works as a host and waitress at La Golondrina, an 88-year-old restaurant on Olvera Street considered the first Mexican restaurant in Los Angeles.
“I think Latinos like coming here because there’s so many of us who can’t go to Mexico, so they come here to feel like they’re in their home country. They come see the artisanal goods people sell, the people, the dances they put on. The Mexican events that they can’t go to back home, they come celebrate here at Olvera Street like the Day of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Cinco de Mayo, Christmas posadas and Día de los Muertos. So what they can’t do over there, they come do here.”
Martha’s family has owned Don Juanitos — a stand selling Mexican items like pottery, tortilla presses, and artisanal toys — for five generations. Her grandfather, Juan, came to the United States from Michoacan and was eventually hired by the founder of Olvera Street, Christine Sterling, to renovate the area along with prisoners. He opened up this stand in 1930 and its been in the family ever since.
“We have five generations in our family, and we’ve been here since the 1930s, since my grandpa. When the founder of Olvera Street, Christine Sterling, came my grandpa helped build Olvera Street with the prisoners.
Back in the time, all the different families that we’ve known for many years would gather around in the wishing well, and we would go to different picnics.
We have owners that have been here since the 1930s, most of them have passed, most of them had left. I'm the one that still has the stand here, it's called Don Juanitos, that's my grandpa.
It's like a home away from home for me and if they would decide to tell us that it's time for us to go. Uh uh, I rather stay here.
When they would sign the contracts, they would say, “Okay, you can have your children, nieces, nephews, in-laws,” whatever it was. But you couldn’t have the grandkids [in the contract]. You could only have your regular kids. They said, “no you cannot have grandkids [in the contract].” So what had happened there, when my grandpa had passed, he signed my mom on the contract, and she signed me on the contract. And I was his grandchild. So we, as they say, stuck it to the man!”
Guillermo Garcia is originally from Durango, Mexico and has been working at La Noche Buena Mexican restaurant for 46 years.
“For me, Olvera Street is very important because it’s a cultural, historic and family-friendly street. I think it’s important because this is where the city was founded. It’s very authentic it’s like a little flavor of Mexico, well this used to be Mexico and that Mexican flavor stayed.”
Martha Medina has owned Olveritas, a store selling regional artisanal products from all over Mexico, for 35 years. Originally from Tijuana where she took courses in anthropology, Martha has a passion for the complex and vast art created in her native Mexico. Her store is a way to share this passion with the world.
“When I studied, I was going to be an anthropologist. So I noticed that everything has a past, an origin, and a history and more than anything that Mexico is an extremely rich place when it comes to ancient culture, natural resources like silver, copper, bronze, minerals, and embroidery, Mexican embroidery is incredibly beautiful. Some people may call them artisans, but I call them artists because they create wonderful worlds with their hands and eyes.
Olvera Street is like a window into Mexico. We are the Mexican identity in the heart of Los Angeles, in the middle of these skyscrapers. Despite all the technology people still come here to feel like they’re in Mexico and they come to find things for their collections.
This place reminds Latinos of the old markets from the home countries they were born and raised. Often times people don’t know that buildings aren’t the history, the history is in the people.”
Andrew and Michelle
Andrew and Michelle are a married couple from East LA. Andrew used to come to Olvera Street as a kid with his family. He wants to share that experience with his wife.
“I’m 26 now, and I’ve been coming here since I was about five years old so pretty much all my life. I came with my family, so it was kind of like a family tradition you know? Learn about our culture, stuff like that. I've been to Mexico maybe a couple of times in my life, and I feel like I’m back there every time I come here.”
Hugo Vasquez and Cristina
Hugo brought his family and little daughter to eat in one of Olvera Street’s Mexican restaurants. He’s been coming here since he was a kid and wants to share that tradition with his children.
“It just brings back a lot of memories when we would go visit back in our hometown in Mexico. Just the smell of the leather. It brings you back through memory lane when you're growing up with your grandpa, your grandma and coming to certain restaurants that try to mimic the same style of food as your home country.
My dad lived right here in Boyle Heights, and he would bring us to Olvera Street with all my brothers and my sister. It's something that’s a stable home of our heritage, and it’s something we can go back to and have a reflection of our upbringing. It’s really important to have this.
To keep them in tune with my upbringing and the love that I have and passion I have for my heritage and my roots. That's the reason I bring them [my family] to Olvera Street.”
Paul is the manager at C26, a stand selling Mexican candy and snacks. His mom and uncle’s own the stall which has been in the family since it opened in 1930.
“My grandpa used to come and scrape the gum off the streets here and wash them down. He owned the stand up there at C14 and my grandpa Frankie, my grandma's dad, he owned this stand. He owned actually both of them, and he gave that stand to my grandma and my grandpa as a wedding gift.
It's my heritage, it means my grandma and my grandpa, where they came from and where they've been and meant to me all my life. It's something that's been in my family for so long that it's part of me.”
Maria is from Boyle Heights and works as a photographer at Olvera Street where she photographs people donning sombreros and sarapes mounted on the iconic fake donkey.
“It's a place where you could see your culture; it's a place where your culture is always gonna be there, it's not gonna go away. Now I guess there's a lot of gentrification going on and all of our roots are going away, but this is a place where it's gonna stay and you can come and be like oh this is kind of like Mexico...Asians, Filipinos, even from Europe all over the places, they come. I’m always like, “oh where you guys from?” And they’re like, “oh were you’re from Egypt” or “oh we’re from Israel.” Like all over. That’s nice. We share our culture. It’s not taking away our culture, but it’s showing our culture to other people.”